This day, December 30th, is a peculiar “anniversary” for me ( the 47th by my count)– and it’s very peculiar that it sticks in my memory. It’s the day I (accidentally) set the Rubbish Room ablaze at the Elm Farm Supermarket on Morrissey Blvd. Yes, an accident. Dumb accident, though. My punishment was to clean up the mess.
I was a bundle ( or bag) boy at the time at that neighborhood market where my brother Doug had worked before me — and I really enjoyed the uncomplicated business of filling up a customer’s paper bundles (no plastic in those days), loading them into trunks and backseats, cadging the occasional tip. (Maybe I should have made a career of this. I’d been trained as a cashier but wanted no part of handling money and ultimately was granted my request for demotion. I’m not much of a capitalist.)
These were, as it happens, somewhat grim and traumatized times at home and in the world. My father was mortally ill with cancer. And the whole universe was still recovering from the shock of a Presidential assassination a little more than a month before. I guess I was finding a little gleeful escape in my after-school workaday chores — and especially when, periodically, I’d get assigned to burn rubbish in the Rubbish Room off the back loading dock.
Boy, did I love that! Solitary labor in a windowless cell of concrete walls, wildly stuffing cardboard into a huge furnace. I’d whirl and pivot as I hurled, jammed or otherwise stuffed collapsed shipping boxes and cartons of every dimension into the huge open maw of that raging steel beast. A supermarket generates tons of empty cardboard boxes, as you can well imagine.
Just so you don’t think I’m weird or a closet pyromaniac, I believe all my fellow bundle — or bag — boys enjoyed that occasional assignment of unsupervised work around a warm furnace — especially in winter — away from the cold managers, cranky customers and blustery external elements in which we were compelled to chase down shopping carts left at odd extremities of the parking lot. But they may not have thought of it, as I did, as a kind of ballet or ritual — or perhaps ever gotten as reckless as I did at about 4 p.m. on Dec. 30, 1963.)
I’d always loved the challenge of cramming as many boxes into the furnace as possible — to the point where you’d see no fire in the open furnace doorway. Then the flames would slowly gnaw away at the cardboard; slowly replace the brown cardboard with hot red fire — and then I’d push a button and the heavy steel door would groan shut, ending any danger that that hungry beast would breath fire out into the room full of tinder.
When the fire had died down, I’d push the “open” button. Up would go the steel door, in would go more junk.
It was Christmas time and all the waxed boxes from frozen Christmas turkeys were piled high around me. Boy did they burn! Occasionally, a bit of flaming debris would pop out into the room — and occasionally ignite more debris. No problem. I’d hastily pluck up all the burning matter and pop it into the furnace. Occasionally, more than one little fire got going. Again,no problem. I’d gingerly pick up ALL the burning stuff — I wore insulated gloves — and pop it all into the fire. I guess this added to this rote exercise a minor thrill of danger — the same sense some otherwise sensible citizens might relish at July Fourth backyard fireworks festivities.
But I wasn’t counting on any fireworks. And on this particular December afternoon, one fiery little bit of trash after another got going and my ballet suddenly turned into a fire dance. As the title of a currently popular novel says, there were “little fires everywhere.”
Up to that point, I’d reveled in the sense of “control” I’d always enjoyed while “playing” with that fire. But now, I was introduced to the sensation of facing a fire “out of control” from my own carelessness. And now there was smoke — lots of smoke. And now more fire. Then — everything seemed ablaze, and I was forced out onto the loading dock, looking back in at an inferno. Smoke was now belching out into the open air.
I went (calmly) into the adjacent meat department and (calmly, sheepishly and shamefacedly) announced to the guys in bloody white butcher coats, “ah, fellas, there’s a fire out there.”
What followed had a little air of comedy. The meat men urgently joined up a hose, hooked it to a big running sink and charged for the dock — but got jerked up short at the swinging doors. a Laurel&Hardy move.
Time for the real hoses.
Soon the air was full of the sirens. I guess it was BFD Engine 20 responding from down Neponset Avenue. It was, ultimately, a minor fire that took minor effort to extinguish Water was blasted into that little concrete room, leaving a charred sodden mess in its wake.
Lesson learned. Don’t play with fire, master Wayland.
And — don’t forget to recycle. It keeps cardboard away from the likes of me.